Fracking passions run hot — and science gets burned


With the possible exception of England’s Royal Baby, few topics are as hot right now as fracking. No matter what news or quasi-news source you turn to, there it is: Impossible to ignore, nearly as impossible to understand.

It’s no surprise that people are passionate about the subject. As Judith Lewis Mernit writes for HCN, natural gas has become an important part of our domestic energy strategy. But science has been slow to catch up to technology, and the picture of what fracking means for the environment and for communities is still hazy — creating a climate ripe for speculation and dubious claims.

"The debate [on both sides] is becoming very emotional. And basically not using science," Duke University professor Avner Vengosh said in a recent interview.

That’s nothing new: the media has been frustrating scientists long before fracking became a hot-button issue. As a journalist, I can empathize. It’s challenging to cover a controversy when both sides lack conclusive evidence, or to write about arcane science when readers and editors alike want stories that drive traffic, sell copies and otherwise pay the bills. Plus, with fracking opponents growing more vocal, perhaps some media makers thought it was fair to give the other side some attention.

Either way, two stories published by the Associated Press last week highlight studies supporting fracking as clean and safe, and were framed with less of a critical eye than the topic warrants.

For example: on July 19, newspapers across the country picked up an AP story about a “landmark federal study” in Pennsylvania conducted by the Department of Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory. According to the AP’s opening paragraph, the study “shows no evidence that chemicals from the natural gas drilling process moved up to contaminate drinking water aquifers.”

Go to the original source, though, and the message is a bit different. The DOE statement reads as follows: “We are still in the early stages of collecting, analyzing and validating data from this site. While nothing of concern has been found thus far, the results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims.”

Far too preliminary, it says. No firm claims. But the lack of conclusiveness didn’t deter the The Denver Post from announcing “Reassuring news on fracking front: A federal study showing that fracking fluids don't infiltrate water supplies ought to ease concerns," or the AP headline from declaring “DOE study: Fracking chemicals didn't taint water."

As the editors responsible for those stories know, lots of folks never read beyond the headline and first paragraph. Regardless of what may be mentioned further down, using an introduction to imply conclusiveness where there is none only further muddies the water.

A second widely-circulated AP story from last week proclaims that “some fracking critics use bad science.” The story questions the credibility of controversial anti-fracking documentary director Josh Fox, who claims in his new film, “Gasland 2,” that Texas cancer rates are higher around fracking sites in the Barnett Shale. But experts from the Texas Cancer Registry, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have all come forward with statements that Fox’s assertions are wrong. Then eminent scholar and author Sandra Steingraber spoke publically defended Fox's claims. How’s a discerning reader to know what to believe?

Sorting through the barbs being traded by pro- and anti-frackers reminds me of watching the movie Blue Valentine, in which two deeply flawed but good-hearted characters unintentionally contribute to their marriage’s demise. As anyone who’s been in love can attest, passion can trump reason, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the national frenzy over fracking has led to the distortion of the truth by both sides.

As to how the discerning reader ought to approach the issue of fracking, perhaps the answer, for now, is with a very critical eye. Because the Environmental Protection Agency recently dropped its investigations into water contamination in Wyoming — and the study has been picked up by the state, with funding from drilling giant Encana — the arrival of unbiased, peer-reviewed scientific data may be delayed even further, and the debate over fracking may grow even more muddled before a clear picture emerges.

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News.

Evidence of an emotional debate: claiming God is on your side

Image credit: Flickr user Bill Baker

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